Saturday, November 27, 2010

SOLITARY MAN: a review of "127 Hours"

"127 HOURS"
Based upon the book Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Aron Ralston

Screenplay Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle
**** (four stars)

What a difference the right filmmaker, the right actor and the right material makes!!

In my previous review of Director Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” starring Julia Roberts, I remarked that perhaps why my reaction to that film was so harshly negative was perhaps because Murphy and Roberts were quite possibly the wrong choices to adapt the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. At this point, I would like to apologize in advance for any continued references to “Eat Pray Love.” Be assured that I am not simply having yet another chance to take it down some pegs. It is simply because with similar thematic material and having seen both films within a 24 hour period, comparisons are inevitable.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I must also mention that any comparisons between these two films is necessary because the art and alchemy of moviemaking is so indefinable. If it were that easy to bottle, then every film created would be a masterpiece. The elements needed in place to generate and capture that lighting in a bottle is so mysterious, so elusive that even the best filmmakers are not always guaranteed success—especially as this movie year has demonstrated as so many of the greats have taken creative stumbles. For “127 Hours,” the new film from Director Danny Boyle, fresh off of his Oscar winning success with the extraordinary ”Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), the elements are firmly in place, to such a degree that he has easily created one of 2010’s very best achievements.

Based upon Aron Ralston’s life-altering experiences and memoir, James Franco delivers a tour-de-force performance as Ralston, a young mountain climbing enthusiast, who in 2003, found himself trapped in a Utah canyon by a fallen boulder, pinning his right arm in the process. Trapped for five days with rapidly depleting food and water, receiving only 15 minutes of sunshine per day and enduring temperatures that plummet to 50 degrees at night, Ralston utilizes this time to examine his life (often through a self-created video diary). And ultimately, faced with certain death, Ralston resorts to the now very famous desperate measure of severing his right arm to ensure his survival.

I am certain that for so many people who may already be aware of this movie are wondering just how or even why would a movie like this be would need to be created in the first place. I can agree with the sentiment to a degree but I am here to assure all of you, dear readers, that “127 Hours” is decidedly not entirely a film about a man who cuts off his right arm to save his life (although I will address this particular issue later). What Danny Boyle has achieved so masterfully is the creation of a film about the very spiritual transcendence that “Eat Pray Love” promised and failed to deliver. It is a film about solitude, a young man’s profound love of and tenuous relationship with an unforgiving environment, his slow, heavy realization that he is absolutely not an island unto himself even when he positions himself as such and the ultimate discovery that when forced into isolation, it is then that he discovers his unique place in life’s fabric.

“127 Hours” belongs within a class of films with similar subject matter like Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away” (2000), Gus Van Sant’s deeply experimental “Gerry” (2002) and Sean Penn’s brilliantly haunting “Into The Wild” (2007). Yet, Boyle nearly re-invents the genre through his endless creativity which has been a staple of his work, including the harrowing and still influential drug addict tale “Trainspotting” (1996). While every film within his oeuvre has not been completely successful (1997’s “A Life Less Ordinary” or 2000’s “The Beach” for instance), it cannot be disputed that when Boyle approaches a new film, he undeniably makes the experience as unique as possible. When Boyle is working to the fullest of his creative gifts, you can practically see his thumbprints upon each frame.

Opening with the caliber of accelerated time lapse photography that recalls the classic impressionistic documentary “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), Boyle propels “127 Hours” to grand cinematic heights. He is more than ably aided by his creative team, which includes several key players from “Slumdog Millionaire,” including his co-writer Simon Beaufoy and the film’s composer A.R. Rathman, who provides the film with a propulsive, ethereal and by film’s conclusion, soul lifting score.

We are deftly inserted into Ralston’s day and seemingly endless struggle through a series of memories, flashbacks, hallucinations, wishes, regrets and fears via every audio/visual technique at his disposal. Boyle ingeniously has devised ways to utilize the camera from any and all conceivable vantage points within the tight and small canyon space in which Ralston is imprisoned and beyond. Can we see inside Ralston’s water bottle? Boyle gets us there. Can we see inside of Ralston’s own video camera as he rewinds images to revisit? Boyle gets us there as well. Can we even see inside of Ralston’s arm for a moment? Boyle even gets us there. This is muscular, kaleidoscopic filmmaking at it s very best, the exact type of which that is extremely difficult to achieve artfully without making the film seem to be an over-directed mess. To obtain this level of cinematic freedom, there has to be a certain rigid discipline and understanding of the craft of moviemaking in place and Danny Boyle is ferociously disciplined.

For all of the visual pyrotechnics, “127 Hours” is not masturbatory filmmaking in the least. At all times, the story of Aron Ralston completely informs the cinematography and overall presentation, not the other way around so that every single frame contains meaning and purpose. Every image signifies a moment in Ralston’s mind and the world at large and how those two seemingly separate areas actually work in tandem. Throughout the film, Ralston (and the audience) are shown exactly how life exists, continues and flows within him/us, without him/us and all moments in between. Ralston’s smallness and veritable insignificance within the world’s grand design is depicted as well as his unique placement as part of all living, evolving things—like the very canyon he is trapped inside of.

Internally, Aron Ralston is shown to be an affable, good-natured young man, speeding through his own life and his own pace and somewhat regardless of those around him. It is not mean spirited or callous. Just perhaps as shortsighted and as tunnel visioned as we all are as we speed through our lives day in and day out. Every speeding car of the city and every sound of laughter from the party occurring without him, signifies every solitary soul on the earth marching to their own distinct beat and pattern, indiscriminate of each other yet completely solitary. We all march together while we all march alone. It is that aloneness Ralston experiences to a nightmarish degree during his confinement and it is through those moments he understands that he is not nearly as alone as he may have set himself up to be. Boyle seems to be suggesting that we are ALL a part of something much larger than ourselves: a family, a friendship, a relationship, the world at large. That we are nothing without each other. The beauty of “127 Hours” is how we arrive at these moments of clarity just as Ralston does, giving this film a symbiotic relationship with the audience. We are as lifted as Ralston and quite possibly for the exact same reasons. And if that’s not enough spiritual transcendence for you in a movie, then I don’t know what is.

Aside from the brief appearances from Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn as two hikers he meets early in his first day in the mountains, James Franco essentially gives a one-man-show of a performance and he is sensational. As much as I have enjoyed him over the years, especially through his work in Judd Apatow’s stable of actors, there has been nothing in his resume thus far that has suggested that he could pull off a role such as this one. In addition to the sheer physicality displayed during the early sequences to the immobility of much of the film’s remainder, Boyle keeps the camera riveted on Franco’s highly expressive face which presents regret, self-resignation, madness, despair, gallows humor, hope and dogged determination with supreme ease and confidence. If he is not nominated for an Oscar, that would be an unforgivable cinematic crime.

But now, the scene you have all wondered about, the scene, which has reportedly caused some fainting in the aisles at some movie theaters across the country. Yes, dear readers, I am speaking of the amputation scene. It is here and how could it not be. I am here to tell you that it is excruciating. It is graphic. It is indeed a teeth gnasher of a sequence. And it is all appropriate and does not wear out its welcome. The sequence is in your face but the film as a whole doesn’t succeed or fail because of it. It is part of Ralston’s story and therefore, it is more than necessary to the entire tapestry Boyle has weaved cinematically. For those of you who are especially squeamish and would like to see this film, you will know when the scene has arrived, and you can just exit yourself for a few moments and return. “127 Hours” respects Aron Ralston’s story and additionally, the film respects the audience who has paid to see this story enough where the film never for an instant descends into torture porn.

“127 Hours” is a story about the discovery of connection when a man is at his most disconnected. Yet his connection becomes our as well as Danny Boyle has delivered a film which is nothing less than a cathartic experience, wholly celebratory of the life force. When the art of movie making is pitched at this level, I have repeatedly stated on this site that we owe it to ourselves and the creative participants involved to support it.

"127 Hours" is one of my favorite films of 2010.

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